ROker Park, the last game of 1989-90. Sunderland were sure of their place in the playoffs; Oldham knew they were going to miss it, largely because of the rigors of an exceptional season which saw them reach the League Cup final and FA Cup semi-finals. Oldham won 3-2 and when the final whistle blew, home fans stormed the pitch.
Slowly they moved towards the corner of the Roker End where the away fans were housed. I was a few meters away on the terrace and I clearly remember the sudden feeling of fear when my father grabbed my arm and started for the exit. But then something remarkable happened. The intruders stopped a few yards from the corner flag, raised their hands above their heads and clapped, a salute to Oldham’s exceptional season that would end with nothing.
As Mike Keegan’s book about that season, This Is How It Feels, makes clear, that moment entered Oldham folklore and reassured them that the rest of the country also respected what they had achieved, those performances against Arsenal, Everton , Aston Villa and Manchester United. It remains one of the most surprising things I’ve seen on a soccer field.
This was a very unusual invasion and it was never clear at what point the decision to collectively applaud the away fans was made. But even the more ordinary invasions can be glorious, an ecstatic release of pent-up emotions at the end of a tense game at the end of a season. The temptation is to say ‘let it go’ that football cannot simultaneously celebrate and market the passion it generates and then protest those outpourings of euphoria.
But the problem is that some fans can’t be trusted, and whether the crowd numbers in the dozen or several thousand, it only takes one to make an invasion extremely dangerous. In the past week we have seen four incidents in England. Port Vale fans appeared to punch and kick Swindon players after their semi-final victory in the second division playoffs. Mansfield’s Jordan Bowery was mauled and a flare thrown by Northampton fans after the Cobblers lost their League Two playoff semi-final.
Crystal Palace manager Patrick Vieira appeared to direct a kick at an Everton fan who taunted him after they confirmed Premier League survival. And the worst came on Monday at the City Ground when, amid other arguments, a Nottingham Forest fan named Robert Biggs headbutted Sheffield United substitute Billy Sharp, requiring Sharp to have stitches and earn a 24-week jail sentence .
Two things seem to be happening at the same time. The first is that there are more pitch invasions than there used to be. Some of this is simple copycat behavior: one club’s supporters are celebrating with a pitch invasion, others are deciding they should too – while realizing there’s little chance of mass bans being imposed when hundreds are rushing onto the pitch.
But in the years after Hillsborough, there was also a feeling that trespassing on the pitch was taboo. Invasions had been the reason fences were built, and everyone had seen the consequences. This 1990 Roker Park invasion was particularly cautious, as if realizing the need to avoid alarms as much as possible. The generation that understood this almost intuitively has moved on.
Second, these invasions seem more likely to be violent towards opposing players and staff than ever before, and this is a common problem. It’s not about a club. It’s not just about football either: violent crime has been rising steadily in the UK since 2013. Stranger violent crime has declined during the lockdown but has since accelerated.
More anecdotal evidence suggests that widespread use of cocaine by fans has lent a more aggressive edge to a social media-fueled tribalism. And that realistically means that pitch invasions, no matter how joyful, must be stopped. It’s a shame, because football has more of these elations, but players, coaches and other fans should never be put in danger in the way they now seem to be.
So what can you do? It’s unrealistic to expect minimum-wage stewards, many of whom have only been superficially trained, to get in the way, but equally unrealistic in terms of cost and resources, let alone the optics that parking lots will always be ringed by the police. The Football League this week proposed considering partial stadium closures as a deterrent, although collective punishment always seems unsatisfactory and with CCTV it certainly can’t be that difficult to identify the majority of those responsible. A simpler countermeasure might be to simply cover the front rows of seats with a tarpaulin, although of course this would reduce capacity.
But actually it’s all about culture here – the culture of football and the culture of society. There’s no reason for the fans not to get along: there were two fairly serious incidents with the Eintracht Frankfurt Ultras in Seville this week, leading to six arrests, but basically tens of thousands from Frankfurt and Rangers were drinking in harmony. It can be done.
We live in a world where mockery and derision of others are the order of the day. Anyone not of our tribe is despised. Everything is reduced to them and us. Football needs to take immediate security measures to keep players safe, but the truth is that pitch invasions wouldn’t be a problem, those moments of anarchic fun could still be allowed if people could just stop being jerks.